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Reading Through the Eyes of Another

April 23, 2011 at 12:04 pm

For me, revision is the most rewarding part of the writing process.  It's the time when all the false starts fall away, when the infelicities of language become fully functioning turns of phrase.  When all the hard work of original composition has been completed (mostly), and I can turn my attention to issues of language and character.  

And, because I'm old-fashioned when it comes to revisions, working with pen and paper, I can physically see the work improving.  I can touch the improvements.  Feel them.  I do it this way because I'm practically incapable of carrying out successful, big-picture revisions purely on my laptop screen.  I can't see the sentences as they're actually written, can't see the story, if I can't also touch it.

Another thing I can't do, and for which I haven't found an easy workaround, is read my own work objectively.  I doubt I'm completely alone in this, but I do think some writers are much better at this than others.  Me?  I'm way down on the left end of the bell curve.  It is very, very difficult for me to look at a piece of my own writing with a detached bird's eye view.

Which isn't to say I can't evaluate my own writing, critique it, and find places for improvement.  That's what second drafts are for, and I do a lot of those.  Participating in workshops and critique groups, both online and in person, has helped me to develop that skill.  And I do believe I have improved over the years.  It's beneficial to my writing efforts when I can ask myself, "Okay. If I were to bring this to critgroup, what would people say about it?" and do a fairly credible job of anticipating peoples' comments.

Even so, it's impossible to be completely detached from a piece of writing.  For me.  Even if I don't mean to do it, I'm always reading through the layers of a ghostly palimpsest.  There's the text on the page, but hovering just beneath it, invisible to all but me, the text that's supposed to be there.  What I said overlaid upon what I meant to say.  The story as-is existing in quantum superposition with the story as-meant-to-be and the story as-could-have-been. 

My workaround for this problem is to take advantage of my truly awful memory.  Because you know what they say:  when life hands you lemons, you clone those lemons, and make super lemons.

The only technique I've ever found that helps mitigate the palimpsest problem is to put things aside for long periods of time.  It helps to come back to a piece of writing after several months spent working on completely different projects.  I like to write short stories between drafts of novels, and maybe outline a new novel between drafts of a short story.  So I appeal to the passage of time, the ticking of the calendar, across multiple half-lives of my exponentially decaying memory.  It doesn't fix the problem, but it does mitigate it.


Brit Mandelo April 23, 2011 at 9:40 pm
I have that same problem - I need a long time away from a piece to be able to even look at it outside of my own head, let alone revise.
Melinda April 25, 2011 at 1:10 pm
Interesting. I rewrite the previous day's work before I begin work on a project. This helps remind me of the story, puts me back in the mindset of the characters and intensifies that sense of place. It's also a way to get a second draft while I'm still creating the book. I also have no objectivity on my work. Thank god for deadlines. Even if it's crap I have to turn it in because I've got a contract and a deadline. Otherwise I would just keep waiting to deliver because I just know if terrible. The deal I make with myself is -- "Well, I know it's not good, but it's the best I can do, so here goes."
Steve Halter April 25, 2011 at 9:17 pm
Setting things aside is a good technique for restoring objectivity and insight. In addition to time, sometimes just doing something completely different can be helpful to me.
Scott Denning April 26, 2011 at 12:26 am
I can't wait to read this book -- what a great title! When is it scheduled for release?
Ian April 26, 2011 at 9:30 am
Well, I submitted the manuscript merely five years ago, which, as you can understand, isn't enough time to read it, much less nail down the publication schedule. It *was* scheduled for 2015 when I turned it in.
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